Saturday, August 2, 2008

Good Bad wine vs. Bad Bad Wine vs. Bad Good Wine

Just wanted to take a quick break from history to put in my 2 cents on a topic that's been popping up all over wine-blogger land recently. It's nothing new, but the issue of cork taint (TCA) and other flaws in wine always gets people excited and encourages passionate conversations about chemistry and taste and winemaking practices. Although I think there's a bit of muscle flexing involved in the Science and Tech. discussions I understand completely why this issue is raised so often. It's a real bummer to open a wine you're excited about (and possibly spent a bit of money on) and discover it's corked or otherwise flawed. But it's also a bummer to open a wine that tastes exactly like it's supposed to and that taste is, to you, gross. The source of controversy and/or difficulty emerges in all the possible scenarios in between these two extremes.

The ability to detect TCA in a wine has become a litmus test for credibility at many wine drinking occasions. Often the person deemed to have the most knowledge or experience is expected to make final judgment on whether a wine is corked or not. This is silly. I think most people with even rudimentary wine knowledge could be trained to quickly spot cork taint and distinguish it from other flaws just as well as anyone. But there are some wine aficionados who for what appears to be biological reasons have a very difficult time with this; Brooklynguy's post on this subject is both honest and refreshing. Others may be "immune" or simply unfazed by different flaws such as "heat" (excessive alcohol) or oxidization or when a wine first begins to "turn" (become vinegar). One common flaw occurs when a wine is "cooked", which means it has been damaged by poor storage and subjected to temperature fluctuations or exposure to heat. But in an earlier experiment at the Lab a wine that was exposed to extreme heat was preferred to the normally stored bottle. So does this mean some people prefer "cooked"(flawed) wines or that sometimes heat damage isn't actually a flaw? Another controversial flaw is brett, a sort of renegade yeast strand that can manifest itself in many ways. Some think it adds complexities and secondary flavors to certain wines, others claim it's always a bad thing. At their extremes all of these "flaws" will make a wine taste bad to almost everyone, regardless of their knowledge or experience. But the difficulties arrive when a wine that should be good just isn't that good. If you've had this wine before than you'll know for sure if it's not as good, but if we're talking about something finicky like old Burgundy maybe it's just not "showing well" or maybe there's a little flaw somewhere. If you don't have the luxury of buying several bottles of the same wine every time then you may never know. And though it's easy to let this frustrate (and then overcompensate by declaring a definitive flaw) I don't think it should become an issue that ruins an evening or a meal or a gathering of friends. If you get an obviously corked, or otherwise flawed bottle at a restaurant send it back, or return it to the store where you bought it. If there's more ambiguity involved then just allow for a few seconds of disappointment and then move on, use it as a learning experience and get excited about the next bottle. Or open a can of beer.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Beginning of the End, Part 1

There's little doubt that wine has been bought, sold and traded as a commodity for almost as long as it has been cultivated. But the rapid expansion of the global wine market over the past several decades is a phenomena with only slim historical precedence. Bordeaux may be the best example of the first "branding" of a wine and a region in order to trade or sell their product to consumers who lived many hundreds of miles (or kilometers) from the vineyards themselves. But certainly Sherry and Port were doing the same thing around the same time, and possibly even earlier, and there's evidence that ancient wine merchants provided certain wines to the wealthy and powerful in Greek and Roman societies that were made with the specific tastes of these valuable consumers in mind. It seems, however, that preference for wines produced in a particular manner or from a specific locale were probably a happy accident at this time. The ways in which technology and information were spread during antiquity and even in the Medieval Period make it unlikely that farmers in Northern Algeria or the Valle d'Aosta would all of sudden decide to change their winemaking methods in order to compete for markets in cities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Clearly, this is not the case today.

In the past 10 or 20 years vintners and companies across the globe have rushed to cash in on the ever increasing demand for wine in both new and established markets. Many are eager to hit the sweet spot in positioning a wine that looks, tastes and performs like some of the most successful global brands. Producing the next Yellowtail or Kim Crawford or Santa Margherita is a prize that's hard to resist. In the meantime a movement has emerged in winemaking that is antithetical to all of this. The natural or sustainable wine movement (or whatever you want to call it) emphasizes much smaller production levels, traditional methods and often organic or biodynamic practices. The idea is to return wine to its sense of place and produce something that is in harmony with its immediate surroundings.

The backdrop to all of this is the modern wine era that begin to emerge during but mostly after the two World Wars. Traditional wine-producing areas in Europe began to increase production with an eye towards new markets, some rustic, traditional wines began to emerge as more serious players and winemakers outside of Europe began to compete with the motherland. By the 1960's and '70's Italy, France and Germany were all exporting lakes of bland, indistinguishable but inexpensive table wines like Soave, Valpolicella, Riunite, Beaujolais, Bordeaux and Liebfraumilch. Most of these wines were exported and sold by just a handful of large companies buying wine from all over w/ little regard to quality or typicity, but at the same time a few producers began to increase the quality and decrease the quantity of some of the very same wines. This made it increasingly difficult for consumers to differentiate the few good reds from the Veneto (for example) from all the bad ones. So France started tightening it's AOC laws, Italy introduced the DOC's and Germany came with its own set of quality control laws. These regulations coupled w/ a little negative press for mass produced wines (most notably the "anti-freeze" scandal in Austria in 1985) were doing a good job of pushing more and more European wine producers and merchants toward favoring quality and originality over quantity by the late '80's and things probably would have continued to improve (and in many cases did) except there was another player entering into the game of wine: the rest of the developed world.

(The picture was found on this lovely little blog).

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I Need Better Editing

That last post was obnoxiously long. Allow me to sum up.

Rome fell. People kept drinking wine. The Catholic Church rose. People kept drinking wine. Monks got really into making and drinking wine. The English and the Bordelaise fell in love and their child was a light, fruity red called Claret. In Bordeaux, Jerez, and the Douro much money and ships came and went. The monks kept drinking better and better wine. The Popes and the rising merchant classes of Italy, France and Germany liked what the monks were drinking. The Brits still loved claret. Wars happened, persecution continued, some guys decided they didn't want to be Catholic anymore. Farmers in Sardignia kept drinking wine. Monks went to the "New World" and couldn't live w/out wine. The wars ended, sort of. Glass bottles emerged and magically so did cork closures. Chateau Haut-Brion got real fancy smancy and bottled their wine on premise. The Brits loved it. Farmers in Slovenia were still drinking wine.

Time covered: 400 AD to 1660 AD.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Everyone Was Drunk or Getting There

The production and consumption of wine increased steadily from the pre-classical era to the rise of the Greek and Roman Civilizations and although Classicals from all walks of life drank wine in large quantities (by modern standards) there was almost certainly a vast difference between the quality and style of wine meant for the poor and what the wealthy and powerful consumed. Then Rome fell. From the (relative) chaos of centuries of migration, conquering and being conquered came the foundation of the modern wine world and the establishment of colonial boundaries that have a huge influence on the Old World vs. New World wine discussion we've entered into.

To be sure, medieval Europeans put their ancestry to shame in terms of shear consumption. Just like the Greeks and Romans everyone from serf/slave to the Kings and Religious Leaders drank fermented beverages (mostly wine, some ale) morning, noon and night. But w/out any major institution or government advocating any sort of temperance and the crumbled infrastructures unable to provide fresh water or sewage the vast majority of Europeans must have been in a continual haze. What didn't change was the quality to status/wealth ratio. The rich and powerful drank "good" meaning real wine that may have been spiced or otherwise manipulated but was probably strong and somewhat sweet. The poor drank mostly tart or bitter wine made from poor or under-ripe grapes or from the water fermented on the leftover pomace after the good juice had been pressed. There are always exceptions of course, and I'm sure some nobility drank complete garbage while the poor farmers and winemakers saved a bit of the best stuff for celebrations, but I think the distinction is largely accurate. Regardless, the presumption that the production of wine slowed dramatically during the early middle ages because of the lack of Roman expertise is probably wrong, although certainly trade was more difficult, technology and know-how stagnated or regressed and many prized vineyards fell into disrepair. So who comes to the rescue around 7 or 800 AD and begins to reclaim the best Roman and Pre-Roman vineyards and nurse them back to health and prosperity? The Popes and their legions of Monks of course!

Although the early Middle Ages saw decline in the extensive wine trade of Imperial Rome there was most likely an increase in local viticulture which included the specialization of indigenous varietals within their prospective regions in order to satiate the need and desire for wine. But most historians credit the various monastic orders with rejuvenating the best vineyards and preserving and progressing the practice of wine making. It does seem that much of what we think of as the "World's Great Wine Regions" owe much of their existence to the monks. A short list would include the Rhine, Mosel, Tuscany, Priorat, the Rhone, Champagne and of course Burgundy. A name conspicously absent is that of Bordeaux. Winemaking in Bordeaux was always a mercantile operation. This is because the region was acquired by the English Crown in the late 12th Century and during this time most of the wine produced in and around Bordeaux was sent to Bristol or London and is the source of Britain's love for claret. This wine came from modern day Graves and surrounding areas. It was not until the Dutch helped drain the swamps of Medoc in the 17th Century that the region was planted w/ vines.

By the end of the Renaissance the great monastic vineyards were in full swing, busy determining the best variatels to plant and the proper times to harvest as well as the most benificial ways of fermentation and storage. In the meantime Bordeaux was entering a troubled time during the 100 Years War and other political strife only to reemerge by the late 17th Century w/ the first wine to be bottled at the Chateau (Haut-Brion). Places like Jerez, The Douro and Madiera were doing fabulously well producing fortified wines for overseas journeys and English Nobility and adventurous monks were planting vineyards in North and South America. Communities in wine growing regions continued to make local wine for consumption and barter while more Northern towns and settlements increasingly took to beer (thanks to hops). Protestant upstarts began advocating temperance and literacy and common folks started thinking that maybe things could be a bit better.

The stage is set for the beginnings of modernity. Wine would continue to evolve as would wine drinkers and the forces of global trade, capitalism and nature would lead us to the the World Atlas of Wine and it's clear deliniation of Old World and New World wine producing regions.

(As state early I'll post a list of references used at the end of the full discussion).